On the blog of The Society for Scholarly Publishing, The Scholarly Kitchen, Rick Anderson has a pretty good summary of the HarperCollins library e-book uproar, in which HarperCollins imposed a 26-checkout limit before library e-books would have to be repurchased. Yesterday I was talking about the ways publishers are failing to connect with consumers, and this turns out to be another example:

How has HarperCollins responded to the uproar? Awkwardly. In a remarkably tone-deaf “open letter to librarians” , HarperCollins explained that “our prior e-book policy for libraries dates back almost 10 years to a time when the number of e-book readers was too small to measure,” and pointed out that with e-book readers on track to number 40 million by the end of this year, the ten-year-old model needed a rethink.

Fair enough. But HarperCollins then makes a very typical mistake, one that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever read a public statement from a journal publisher defending a massive price increase: “We are looking,” HarperCollins sniffs, “to balance the mission and needs of libraries and their patrons with those of authors and booksellers, so that the library channel can thrive alongside the growing e-book retail channel.” So, in other words: HC is drastically raising the cost of ongoing access to its e-book list so that libraries can “thrive.” Of course — it’s for our own good! How silly of us not to see it that way to begin with.

Anderson points out that this new policy could simply lead libraries to spend the same amount on HarperCollins e-books as they had before, but concentrate it on the most popular titles, meaning that midlist authors who formerly saw some of those library purchase funds could get left out in the cold.

He points out that it really doesn’t matter whether pricing practices are “fair”, just whether they’re sustainable, and the broad uproar over HC’s price changes suggests they are not sustainable in the long run. Though on the other hand, a boycott may be a bit overly broad in terms of response to a price increase in one subcategory of HC’s product line. He suspects that in the end HarperCollins will figure out how to come to some kind of face-saving compromise, and extract the same amount of extra money somewhere else.

“Remarkably tone-deaf” seems to describe a lot of industry communications with consumers in the last little while. The way that, after the agency pricing spat with Amazon first kicked off, Macmillan addressed all their immediate discussion to authors, illustrators, and literary agents while having no words for consumers for weeks just promoted a slow boil. Nobody likes to feel ignored, especially when suppliers unilaterally decide to raise prices.

But I have to admit, after thinking about it, that it’s not clear just how badly damaging this miscommunication really is. A lot of the voices that speak up in our comments, and in the blogs I read, come from a pretty vocal minority who are loudly dissatisfied with publisher actions and can tell you why in detail (myself included). However, I suspect that most consumers just don’t pay attention and simply vote with their pocketbooks by not buying stuff that costs too much (or reluctantly buying it when it’s by an author they have to read right away). Publishers live or die based on the purchasing decisions of these consumers, not on the angry loudmouth bloggers.